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  2. I had an email from Wizzair the other day saying that, due to congestion at Cluj airport, they advised us to arrive more than two hours ahead of our flight. Our flight is scheduled for 18.30 this evening, meaning that we were planning to be at the airport by 16.30 anyway, so we decided that given this extra warning, we didn't want to stray too far from Cluj today. When we checked into our apartment here on Friday, the host had explained that Cluj had a botanical garden, so we decided to spend the morning exploring that. We checked out of the apartment after breakfast and walked to the train station, where Tim had researched that there was a place where we could leave our bags. Sure enough, there was a man with a baggage room and we only had to pay about £2 each to deposit our bags there. With that done, we were free to walk to the botanical gardens, which were a mile or so on the opposite side of town. It didn't look very far on the map at all and we soon reached a sign in the city centre which announced that we only had 850m to go. What I hadn't realised, however, was that the botanical gardens are located on a hill and the last part of the journey would therefore be rather steep! We made it up the hill in the end and it only cost us another £2 each to get in. As soon as we entered the gates, we were greeted with a beautiful display of flowers. The botanical garden was opened here in 1872 and is linked to the local university. Apparently it is home to over 10 000 plants and covers 14 hectares. I'd hoped that once we got into the gardens themselves they might be flat, but no, the whole garden is on a hill and so there was more uphill to go Once we'd passed through the part with the flowers, we soon found ourselves in a different part of the garden which was more like a woodland. Some of the paths where were a bit more challenging than I had expected from a botanical garden! There was a stream running through the middle of the gardens. We crossed over it on a bridge. Once on the far side of the bridge, we caught sight of some beautiful purple flowers. They looked a bit like crocuses, although they can't have been! By this stage we'd completed a loop and were back in the flower gardens that we recognised We now just had time to walk back into the city centre and get some lunch, before finding the bus to the airport. We found a different restaurant in the old town to last night and sat outside in the sunshine. I had a diavola pizza and Tim had chicken quesadillas. We had time for pudding too; a lava cake for Tim (this one was supposed to be white) and Nutella pancakes for me The final remaining challenge was to locate the airport bus, which we believed departed from somewhere near the station. We retrieved our bags and found the bus stop without any difficulties, but struggled to figure out how to find a ticket. In the end Tim went into a shop to ask someone and we managed to figure out the machine. It only cost 5 lei for two trolleybus tickets - less than 47p each As I said yesterday, it's been a really great holiday and we've had a lot of fun exploring two new countries. It's also been an incredibly cheap holiday; both Romania and Bulgaria have been really affordable and the accommodation in particular has been a real bargain We've also had incredible weather; not a single drop of rain in the entire two weeks. I don't think we could have hoped for better
  3. As we'd seen most of Cluj yesterday afternoon, we decided last night that we needed to plan another day trip for today. Tim had a look at our Transylvania guidebook and read about an interesting place called Bánffy Castle, located in a nearby village called Bonțida. We decided to give it a go. Bonțida is on a direct train line from Cluj, so it was fairly straight forward to get there. The only problem was that the trains run quite infrequently, especially at weekends, so there was essentially only one train which we could get out in the morning and one which we could catch back to Cluj in the evening. We made the morning train at 11.01 and 40 minutes or so later we arrived at the station in Bonțida. First impressions were that we seemed to be absolutely in the middle of nowhere. We had to stand and wait for our train to move on before we could walk across the tracks to the station. It was a very pretty place to wait though Eventually the train moved on and we were able to walk across to the station building and check that we had the right time of 17.53 for the return train. Train time confirmed, we set off towards the castle, which is a couple of miles away from the station. Luckily it's quite an easy walk, all down one main road through the village of Bonțida. The village itself is small but it's in a lovely location. There were some posters up, presumably for a forthcoming election. This politician's slogan reads "For a normal Romania"; not quite as ambitious as making Romania great again After a while we crossed a river. It was bigger and faster flowing than some of the rivers we've seen on this holiday. Once we were across the river, we were getting closer to the centre of the village. There are two churches close together in the central square. This is the Catholic one... ...and this is the Orthodox one. There were also some really big flags in the centre of the square. Just round the corner from here, we got our first view of the castle. It only cost 10 lei (about £2) each to get inside. A castle was first built here in 14th century, with most of today's fortified structure dating from the late 17th century. Renovations were made during the 18th and 19th centuries and the castle was so ornate that it became known as the Versailles of Transylvania. Unfortunately, during the Second World War the castle was destroyed by retreating German troops, taking revenge on its owner - Count Miklós Bánffy - who had been assisting the Allied forces. During the Communist period, the castle fell further into decay. Today efforts are ongoing to try and restore the castle and several bits of it are now open to the public to walk around. The first thing we saw when we arrived was a display of statues. Or rather, the remains of statues, which used to decorate the facade of the castle and which were destroyed by the Germans. We then walked into a room where the walls were covered in patterns. It wasn't entirely clear, but I think these were examples of how the castle would have been decorated. Some of them were really pretty From there we were able to walk around some of the rooms which have now been made safe for visitors. This was the main castle building... ...where there was a big ladder to climb up. (Though not a lot to see once you got up there!) This building would once have been the castle's chapel. The castle used to have a large landscaped park. That hasn't been restored yet, so at the moment there's only a little lake which you can walk around. It's pretty though Once we'd finished exploring, we still had some time to kill before our train back to Cluj. Luckily one of the restored buildings is home to a cafe, so we were able to sit there and have coffee and chocolate (/beer and crisps!). Then it was time to start walking back through the village towards the station. It was a really scenic walk and we were passed by three separate horses and carts on the way. We were back at the station on plenty of time for our train to Cluj, which arrived very punctually. Romanian trains always seem to be on time! Once we got back to Cluj we were hungry, so we decided to walk into the town centre in search of food. On the way we passed some interesting buildings which we'd missed yesterday. There was this really pretty church... ...and this very striking synagogue. The restaurant we ate at yesterday was so nice that we decided to go back. We both had the goulash with gnocchi that Tim had had yesterday. While we were eating, some rather strange figures appeared in the square behind us. It was a group of slightly scary people on stilts Some of them were dancing, while the others were beating drums. Partway through the performance, the lightbulbs hanging above the street were suddenly turned on. We thought the performance was over and everyone was walking away... ...but a few minutes later they all reappeared... ...and danced past us again. It was a rather bizarre performance, but it was nice seeing the old town all lit up with the light bulbs Overall we've had a great two weeks in Bulgaria and Romania It's been really fun to explore two new countries, both of which have turned out to have some beautiful countryside and some really interesting towns. I have a feeling we will travel to both countries again at some point in the future
  4. We had a leisurely start to the day in Sighișoara, enjoying breakfast on the terrace and then walking to the train station, with a detour via Lidl to pick up some food for lunch. Our train to Cluj was leaving Sighișoara at 11.48, so we knew we wouldn't be able to get a proper meal until the evening. We'd opted for first class again with the train, so we had a comfortable, air-conditioned journey through the Romanian countryside, arriving in Cluj around 15.45. There hardly seemed to be any habitation between Sighișoara and Cluj at all; just occasional hamlets, where people still seem to get around by horse and cart. We're staying in an apartment in Cluj. For some reason this has turned out to be the most expensive accommodation of the holiday, at £42.50 per night. It's a really nice apartment though and we've got air conditioning in the bedroom, which is always a bonus Once we'd unpacked a bit, we went out to explore the city. Our apartment is right by this pretty square. As with everywhere we've been in Romania, we didn't have to go far to find colourful houses. We headed towards the city's central square, Piața Unirii, which is dominated by this large church. This is St Michael's church, a Catholic church built by the Hungarians in the 15th century. It's the second largest church in Transylvania, the largest being the Black Church in Brasov which we saw earlier in the week. The owner of our apartment had warned us that the main square was going to be dominated by an event for children. Sure enough, we arrived and found it full of stalls and balloons! There was also a stage with dancing gnomes. In front of the church is a large statue of a man on a horse. This is Matthias Corvinus, who was king of Hungary from 1458 to 1490, and who was born in Cluj. From the main square we caught sight of another church which looked interesting, down a side street. We wanted to go and explore that, but first we took a detour to Cluj's central park. We'd seen on our map that there was a lake in the middle of the park. There were some rather colourful boats on it As we left the park we came across a monument to people who died resisting the Communist regime in Romania. From there it wasn't far to the church we'd seen. This is Cluj's Romanian Orthodox cathedral. Work started on the building in 1923 and it was officially opened in 1933. Outside the cathedral is a large statue of Avram Iancu, a Romanian national hero. It was regarded as controversial when it was erected, because historically the population of the city was majority Hungarian. Across the road from the cathedral is a bright yellow theatre and opera building. It's a really pretty part of town overall We walked along one of the main streets, which was decorated with Romanian and EU flags. There's a statue of Romulus and Remus here too! There was still plenty going on in the main square, so we walked to a quieter side street to find somewhere to eat. We found a nice restaurant where I had spaghetti carbonara and Tim had goulash. For pudding we both ordered "lava cake", which was a warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce in the middle, served with raspberry ripple icecream. It was getting dark by the time we'd finished eating. The main square looked pretty lit up at night... ...as did the square by where we're staying. I think we've managed to see the highlights of Cluj this afternoon, so we went back to the apartment to try and plan a day trip for tomorrow
  5. One downside of our guesthouse not being located in the town centre is that we (or, more precisely, Tim!) had a long walk to the nearest shop to buy breakfast. He did get a nice view on the way though Once he'd returned from Lidl, we sat outside on the terrace to eat breakfast and our landlady brought us coffee and homemade chocolate cake, which was a nice surprise We were able to have a relaxed start to the day because we were planning to visit the town of Mediaș, about 25 miles west of Sighișoara, and there wasn't a train until after 11am. Luckily, the train journey between the two towns is only short. We travelled through some pretty countryside, before stepping off the train in Mediaș around half an hour later. The first sight we came to when we started walking from the train station into the town was this synagogue. We've seen a lot more synagogues on this holiday than I expected! We'd chosen Mediaș for a day trip because we'd read that it had a well preserved historic centre. It did indeed look very pretty as we walked towards it. It didn't take long to reach the main square. There's a little park in the middle of the square, full of colourful flowers. Little streets lead off from here in all directions. We followed one of them, towards the edge of the old town. There we found the remnants of the old town walls. We were able to walk along the side of them for a while. We came to one of the old gates into the town... ...and went back into the main centre. There were so many colourful houses here Mediaș is believed to have been founded in 1146, making it one of the oldest towns in Romania. Again, this was historically a town that was settled by Saxons, and so it wasn't until the 19th century that the first Romanian church was built here. The big church which dominates the town is a Lutheran church. It was originally built as a Catholic church by the Transylvanian Saxons in the 15th century, but converted to a Lutheran church during the Reformation. It was built as a fortified church, in the middle of a fortress complex, and as we got closer we were able to see a big tower, known as the Trumpeter's Tower. It was so called because a trumpeter would sit at the top of it and alert the citizens of the town to approaching danger. This pretty building next to the church complex is a high school, founded by the local pastor Stephan Ludwig Roth. He upset the Hungarians by arguing against Hungarian becoming the sole official language of Transylvania and was executed in 1849. All the exploring was making us hungry, so we set off to find somewhere to get lunch. We found a nice restaurant where we could sit in the main square. I played it safe with schnitzel and chips again, but Tim was more adventurous and chose a Romanian dish. It was a pork stew, served with polenta and peasant-style potatoes. For pudding, Tim had pancakes filled with nuts and honey, while I had a chocolate brownie. Unbelievably, the entire meal (including a glass of wine for me, a beer for Tim, a bottle of water and a coffee) only came to £21. After lunch we did some more exploring. We caught sight of another tower on the opposite edge of the town to where we'd been previously. It was a really impressive tower, complete with portcullis There's a whole stretch of wall which has been restored here. Just outside the walls, we found the town's Romanian Orthodox cathedral. It was nearly time to go back to the station to catch one of the infrequent trains back to Sighișoara, but we just had time for a final stroll around. It felt like some of the houses in this part of town were competing to see who could be the most brightly coloured This blue was rather striking... ...as was this yellow... ...and with this green As we had a final walk through the main square, we realised belatedly that there is a Mediaș sign here. Admittedly not quite as impressive as the one in Brasov, but it still made for a good photo The train journey back took a little longer than expected, because the train went really slowly for no clear reason (there have been zero train announcements on any train we've travelled on during this holiday - both in Bulgaria and Romania!). But we'd paid for first class again, so we had comfy seats with air conditioning and it didn't really matter. Tomorrow we will be leaving Sighișoara and travelling to our final destination of the holiday: Cluj.
  6. This morning it was time for us to leave Brașov and travel onwards to our next destination, Sighișoara. Train timetables in Romania seem to be quite irregular, so we had a choice of an early train this morning or a late afternoon one which wouldn't get us to Sighișoara until it was almost dark. We decided to go with the earlier train, which involved us leaving our apartment at 8am this morning to walk to the train station in Brașov. We made it just on time for our train and were able to buy tickets from a machine. We went for first class again and it cost around £12 each. The first class carriage was reasonably comfortable, though the air conditioning was so cold that I wished I'd brought a jumper! It was a scenic journey of around three hours to get to Sighișoara. We travelled through miles of sparsely populated countryside, passing the occasional small town. As soon as we arrived in Sighișoara and stepped out of the train station, we got our first view of the old town in the distance. Because we'd caught the morning train, we were too early to check into our guesthouse at the moment, so we decided to walk towards the town centre to kill some time. We soon found ourselves at a bridge across the river Târnava Mare. On one side we could see the old town... ...while behind us we could see Sighișoara's Romanian Orthodox cathedral. We didn't want to walk too far with the cases, so we found a cafe just across the river where we were able to sit outside with a drink (and a nice view!) until it was time to start walking towards our guesthouse. I struggled to find accommodation in Sighișoara when I was making bookings earlier in the year, and so we've ended up staying in a small guesthouse here rather than an apartment. The place we're staying is really nice but when I booked it, it was on the basis that I thought it was within a mile of the train station. It turns out that it is... but a mile in the opposite direction from the train station compared to the rest of the town The guesthouse is on a bit of a hill, so we've got a nice view from our windows. We settled in for a while and then set off to see Sighișoara properly without our suitcases. Sighișoara is another historically Saxon town. German craftsmen and merchants came and settled in the area in the 12th and 13th centuries. Sighișoara became an important medieval city and today is a world heritage site because of its well-preserved fortified old town. As we walked towards the old town, we noticed that there were some serious traffic jams on the main roads into the town. It turned out there had been some sort of cycle race going on today (it looked like a Romanian version of the Tour de France) and so presumably the roads had been closed. There was still a lot of cycling related activity going on in the main square when we arrived, which slightly obstructed our view up towards the old town. Even with the cycling banners, the streets looked really pretty though. The fortified medieval town was built on top of a hill and is known as the citadel. We started climbing up towards it... ...and soon had a good view out across the newer part of town. We emerged at the top of the hill, near Sighișoara's city hall. From here, we wandered through the colourful streets. We passed the house where Vlad Dracul, the father of Vlad the Impaler who inspired the character Dracula, was born. There are lots of towers in the town, but the most impressive one is this huge clock tower. This was historically the main gate to the city. The tower also used to serve as Sighișoara's town hall. It's got a very elaborate clock face with figures which looked like they might do something when the clock struck the hour, but we just missed it. From the clock tower we emerged into a really colourful square. This white building is known as the Stag House, because of the stag's head attached to its facade. Down this little street we found the town's Catholic church. It was built by the Hungarians, who have also historically been an important minority in the town. The historical defence system in Sighișoara was organised so that each guild was responsible for defending a tower. This was the bootmakers' tower... ..this one, hiding slightly behind a tree, was the tinsmiths' tower... ...and this one was the ropemakers' tower. This building isn't a tower, but it has a really unusual roof! As we wandered through the streets, we realised that we weren't actually at the top of the hill after all. To get right to the top, you have to use this staircase, known as the Scholars' Staircase. It's an extremely steep staircase, originally built in 1642 to allow people to reach the school and church at the top of the hill more easily during winter, when snow made other routes slippery. The school is right at the top of the staircase. We were rather out of breath by the time we got there. There's also a large church on the hilltop. This is, appropriately enough, called the Church on the Hill Work started on a church here in 1429 and today it's apparently the third largest church in Transylvania. We spent a while walking around the hill top... ...and enjoying the views. Then it was back off down the stairs again! We found a nice restaurant in the square where we could sit outside and get dinner. I had chicken schnitzel with chips, while Tim had Hungarian goulash, and we shared a bottle of Romanian wine. For pudding, Tim had an apple crumble and I had chocolate pancakes It was a lovely place to sit outside After dinner we climbed back down out of the old town. The more modern part of town at the bottom of the steps was pretty too... ...and there were still plenty of colourful houses here We found another Romulus and Remus statue. This definitely seems to be a thing in Romania! The walk back to the guesthouse (the orange building below) didn't feel quite as long now we knew where we were going. And when we got in, we found that our hosts had left us shots of a Romanian spirit to try Not sure what it's called; it tastes a bit like Croatian rakija and it's very strong!
  7. It was another bright sunny day when we woke up in Brașov this morning We didn't need to go far from our apartment before we caught sight of the Brașov sign on the hills behind the town. The glimpse we'd got of Brașov while out getting food last night suggested that it was going to be a really pretty place. Brașov is the seventh largest city in Romania. Historically, it was the capital of the Transylvanian Saxons. The Saxons began to settle in Transylvania from the 12th century. They originally came to help defend the borders of what was, at the time, the Hungarian kingdom, but they soon became involved in mining and trading too, and built fortified settlements all over the region. Transylvania was unified with Romania after the First World War, and from this point the German population began to decline. There must also have been a significiant Jewish population in Brașov at some point, because we found a very elaborate synagogue. You can't really see it in the photo, but it had really pretty stained glass. We caught sight of turrets in the distance and went to investigate. It turns out that this white turreted building used to be the main gate into the city in medieval times. However, in the 19th century a new (bigger) gate was built in order to allow in more traffic. From the gate we walked towards the town's main square. We were confronted by an absolutely enormous church. This is the Biserica Neagră (the Black Church), a Gothic Lutheran church which was built by the German community. It's so large you have to get quite a long way away from it to fit it all in a photo! The church sits in Piața Sfatului. The centre of the square is dominated by this large building, which used to be the town's council house. Today it houses a history museum. The entire square is so beautiful that it was difficult to know in which direction to look first All sides of the squares are lined with colourful buildings. There were some interesting churches too. And, of course, we could see up to the Brașov sign above the town. We left the main square and explored some of the side streets. There were even more colourful houses here On the edge of the old town we found a park. There were some very unusual flower displays here; this one looked like a peacock with a tail of flowers. There were also some attractive buildings in this more modern part of the town. And we found what looks like another Romulus and Remus statue. We'd read in the guidebook that there is a cable car up the mountain behind the town, so we set off to try to find it. We climbed up a steep road, followed by some staircases, on the edge of the town and into the woods, where we found the cable car station. It only cost 18 lei each (£3.40) for a return trip. Admittedly, when we got to the top there wasn't much of a view initially, because everywhere was so forested. We followed a sign which indicated a 10 minute walk to a viewpoint... and before we knew what was happening, we realised we were behind the Brașov sign! It was really cool to see it from the other side! Once we walked past the sign, we found there was a small viewpoint jutting out over the trees. It was quite busy so we had to wait our turn for photos. It was worth it, though; the views of the town were spectacular. We could see right town to the central square where we'd been this morning There didn't seem to be a lot further you could walk on the top of the hill, unless you wanted to walk all the way back down to Brașov, so we went back towards the cable car station, where there was a small cafe. Tim decided to sample some of the local beers. The cable car was quite busy, but we managed to get positioned near the front for the ride back down From the bottom cable car station, we went for a stroll through the woods on the edge of the town. There were some lovely views from here as well. We could see bits of the old town walls... ...as well as back towards the Black Church in the centre of town. There were some interesting buildings as we came back down into the town too. Even the town's tennis courts seemed to be surrounded by historic buildings. We also found a church with a beautiful silver roof. We set off back down the colourful streets towards our apartment, where we wanted to cool off for a bit. In the evening we set out again, in search of some food. We made our way to the main square, where there were lots of places to eat. It was really cool to see the Brașov sign again now that we'd been standing behind it We could see the cable car station and where we'd walked too. We found a restaurant with a great view to have dinner I had lasagne and Tim had rigatoni... ...followed by tiramisu It's definitely one of the most scenic views we've had dinner to, and a great end to our time in Brașov
  8. Today we were due to leave Bucharest and head north towards the town of Brașov. However, Romanian train timetables seem quite irregular and so our train wasn't leaving Bucharest until the afternoon. That meant we had time to do a bit more sight-seeing in Bucharest, and there was one more sight which I particularly wanted to see but which we hadn't managed to fit into yesterday because it's located a bit outside the city centre: Bucharest's "Arcul de Triumf". The Arcul de Triumf is located near a metro station called Aviatorilor so metro seemed like the best way to get there. We walked to Piața Romană, the metro station nearest to where we were staying, and bought our tickets. What I hadn't quite thought through was that this was a Monday morning and it seems like Bucharest's rush hour is later than we have in the UK. When the metro arrived it was extremely full and we only just managed to squeeze our way on! I hadn't expected it to be so busy, because we were travelling from the city centre to the outskirts, but it felt like a lot of people must live in the centre of town and commute to offices further out to work. Luckily we only had a couple of stops to go, so we survived the crush and were soon out in the open air at Aviatorilor. Once we were off the metro, it didn't take us long to find what we had come to see A triumphal arch was first built here in 1878, to celebrate Romanian independence. This first attempt was a wooden structure, which was eventually replaced by this more solid version in 1936. It certainly looks rather similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but Bucharest has historically been referred to as the Paris of the East, so maybe it's not too surprising Unfortunately the arch is in the middle of an extremely busy traffic junction and so we couldn't get any closer to it. While we were admiring it though, we caught sight of a church in the distance. This is the Cașin Church, which is dedicated to the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The arch is also not far away from a large park, called Herăstrău Park. Unfortunately we didn't have enough time to explore it today, but it looked like it would be pretty. We caught the metro back to our apartment, packed up our stuff and checked out, before walking a mile or so across Bucharest to the Gara de Nord. Once there, we needed to buy our train tickets to Brașov. Romania seems a bit more modern than Bulgaria and it was possible to buy the tickets from a machine rather than having to queue for a ticket desk. Having learned from our experiences in Bulgaria last week, we decided to pay for first class. I'm not sure what the price difference was, but we ended up paying 70 lei each for the journey (around £13). We found the correct platform for our train, but we were a bit early and it wasn't there yet. We were travelling over lunchtime and beginning to feel a bit peckish, so Tim paid a visit to the station McDonalds to get us something to eat on the train. We were therefore in the slightly surreal situation of sitting in Romanian first class while eating chips from brown paper bags First class was quite nice and spacious and, unlike Bulgarian trains, there was air-conditioning. The seats were laid out airline style rather than being divided into compartments, which also seemed a bit more modern. The journey from Bucharest to Brașov took just under three hours and it was an unexpectedly scenic journey, as we travelled past forests and mountains. When we arrived in Brașov we had a bit of a walk ahead of us, because the train station is a couple of miles outside the town. As we made our way down one of the main streets towards our apartment, we caught sight of a large sign on one of the hills above us. Not quite Hollywood, but still quite impressive We found our apartment and checked in. At £35.50 per night, this one was another bargain We've got a spacious kitchen/living area... ...a separate bedroom... ...and what looks like quite a posh bath. There's also a pretty good view out of our bedroom window By the time we'd settled in and gone out to get food it was getting dark, but this photo shows the hills behind where we're staying. Brașov looks like it's going to be a really pretty town and we're looking forward to exploring it properly tomorrow
  9. It was another bright sunny day when we woke up in Bucharest this morning. After breakfast, we set off in the direction that we'd taken yesterday, soon coming to the familiar building of the university library. What I hadn't realised yesterday was that this was really close to Bucharest's Revolution Square. On one side we had the former Royal Palace (now an art museum)... ...and on the other side of the road we had the former headquarters of the Romanian Communist party. The dictator Ceausescu gave his final speech from one of the balconies on this building, during Romania's 1989 revolution. On the corner of the square is the Kretzulescu church, originally built in the 18th century. From the square we were walking down Calea Victoriei, one of Bucharest's main streets, which was modelled on the Champs Elysee in Paris. There were lots of pretty buildings along it. Partway down we found this fountain... ...with a huge Romanian flag flying above it. Every so often we'd come across tiny little churches, squeezed between bigger more modern buildings. This beautiful big building is the headquarters of a Romanian bank. Just across the road from it, we found our way into Bucharest's old town. A lot of the old town was demolished during the reign of Ceausescu, to make way for his new plans of urban development, but the bits that remain are really pretty. Down one of the side streets, we came across this incredible church. This is the Stavropoleos church, originally built in 1724. It was decorated with really beauitful paintings. Not sure what this church was called, but it had an impressive silver dome... ...while this one was the Curtea Veche church, built in 1559, making it one of the oldest churches in Bucharest. I was surprised at how busy the old town was; we came across several walking tours of tourists, and there were souvenir shops everywhere. There were also a lot of restaurants clearly aimed at tourists, including Irish pubs! Once we left the old town behind, it was a bit quieter. We walked through a park... ...and caught sight of what looked like a huge fountain in the distance. It turned out that it was an entire complex of fountains! As you can see in this shot, there was a traffic island full of fountains in the middle, with cars driving around it, and then huge pools of fountains on the other side of that. We walked down one of the boulevards leading off from this fountain square, which was itself decorated with smaller fountains. We were walking towards the Palace of the Parliament. This absolutely enormous building was built by Ceausescu, inspired after a visit to North Korea(!), and is believed to be the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon. As well as what you can see above the ground, it has eight underground levels, including a nuclear bunker. Today it is home to the Romanian parliament, plus several museums, and is also a venue for conferences... but approximately 70% of the building still lies empty. We walked all the way around the outside of it (which took ages!). On the way we caught sight of the domes of an enormous church. This is the People's Salvation Cathedral, an extremely new Romanian Orthodox cathedral, on which construction only started in 2010. The cathedral was consecrated in late 2018, but it looks like there's still a fair amount of work to be done before it's finished. From here we walked back down the long boulevard... ...towards the fountains. Taking a different direction this time, we walked towards the national library of Romania. The library is situated on the banks of the river Dâmbovița and it was really pleasant to stroll around here. We were looking for a bookshop, in the hope of buying some Romanian Asterix for Tim. On the way back towards the centre of town, we passed what looked like a statue of Romulus and Remus with the wolf. We thought Romulus founded Rome rather than Romania, but who knows Down this street we found the bookshop we were looking for. It was a really beautiful building inside We found the books we were looking for and then climbed up to the top floor, where there was a lovely cafe, to enjoy some cold drinks. From the bookshop it was back out into the sunshine again. We soon found ourselves in University Square, a large square which was home to several statues. In a gap between two buildings we got a glimpse of Bucharest's Russian church We were really hot by this point; this thermometer suggested it could be as hot as 36 degrees! We decided to go back to the apartment to cool off for a bit, before heading out later for an evening meal. On the way back, we strolled through one of Bucharest's parks. There was a big boating lake in the middle of the park... ...and we found some unusual brown ducks So far our experiences of Romania are positive I was worried from some of the things I'd read online that there would be packs of stray dogs roaming the streets, but so far we haven't seen a single one! Bucharest definitely feels like a big city and we could probably have spent more time here, but tomorrow we will be on the move again as we head to Transylvania
  10. Today it was time for us to leave Veliko Tarnovo (and Bulgaria) behind as we travelled to this holiday's second country: Romania. One of the reasons that I'd planned Veliko Tarnovo as the final stop on our Bulgarian tour was that, on paper, it looked like this would be the easiest place from which to get to Bucharest by train. However, when I looked into it more thoroughly, I realised that that the trains to Bucharest don't depart from the station in Veliko Tarnovo, but from the station at Gorna Oryahovitsa where we had to change on our way from Sofia the other day. That wouldn't be a problem in and of itself, except for the fact that there are only a handful of trains between Veliko Tarnovo and Gorna Oryahovitsa each day, and they don't co-ordinate in any way with the trains to Bucharest. So if we'd wanted to travel by train, we would have had to entertain ourselves in Gorna Oryahovitsa railway station between 10.25 and 13.15 while we waited for a connection. I thought about it for a while, before deciding to book bus tickets instead I'd booked tickets online with Flixbus and our bus was departing from Veliko Tarnovo bus station at 12.45. That meant I was able to have a nice lie in this morning, after a relatively late evening last night seeing the light show and finishing the blog Our bus arrived promptly and was more comfortable than the bus on which we'd travelled from Burgas to Plovdiv earlier in the week. That was good, because the journey to Bucharest was scheduled to take around 4.5 hours. The tickets had been very reasonably priced, at around £10 each, including a seat reservation. We left Veliko Tarnovo and travelled through the rocky river valley that we'd been looking at from the fortress yesterday. From here the route led through increasingly flat countryside until, after a couple of hours, we got close to the border near the Bulgarian city of Ruse. The Bulgarian-Romanian border is marked by the Danube, and first of all our bus had to join what seemed to be a queue for permits to cross the bridge. The Danube is incredibly wide at this point. Once we'd crossed the river, we were officially in Romania Almost straightaway, a member of the border police got on board to collect up our passports. Our bus then had to pull over into a bay and wait for half an hour or so before the passports were returned to us. I never like being separated from my passport, but it was relatively painless as border crossings go. The bus was due to arrive in Bucharest at 16.10 but it was running a bit behind schedule by this point - and we got caught in some traffic trying to get into Bucharest - so it was nearer 17.00 by the time we pulled into Bucharest's Autogara Militari. This was not a terribly scenic bus station, on the outskirts of the capital. However, our research had suggested that it was going to be relatively simple to get into the centre of town from here via the metro. The only slight problem was that when we stepped out of the bus station, we couldn't see anything which looked like a metro station or indeed any signs towards one. Tim tested out his Romanian by asking a taxi driver where it was, and soon we were on our way The metro was unbelievably cheap and two tickets cost us 5 lei (95p). When the train came it was modern and spacious and we had plenty of room for our luggage. It was notably different from the metros we've used this year in Russia and Ukraine though, because the escalators were incredibly short; no sooner had we stepped onto them then it was time to get off again We got off the metro at a stop called Piața Romană, from where our apartment was only a short walk away. I'd had a message from the owner earlier in the week, explaining that it was self check-in and giving me a code for the key safe, as well as photos of what the apartment door looked like etc. We found the correct place with no problems and everything worked like clockwork. The apartment is lovely inside. We've got a living area... ....with a dining table, and a small kitchen in a separate room. The bedroom comes complete with its own air-conditioning unit, in addition to the one in the living room. Accommodation in Romania is (slightly!!) more expensive than in Bulgaria, and so this place has cost £36 per night. Once we'd unpacked a little bit we headed out to explore the neighbourhood and get some food. As we'd been walking from the metro station to our apartment, we'd passed this really beautiful building. It turns out that this is the Romanian Athenaeum, a concert hall opened in 1888. There seemed to be some sort of concert being screened in the square outside it. A little further down the road, this impressive building is the central university library. The statue outside is of King Carol 1 of Romania. Our first impressions of Bucharest are that there are some really beautiful buildings, interspersed with some really ugly ones We found this pretty yellow house, for example, overshadowed by a large communist-looking building behind... ...while this building made me feel like we were already in Transylvania We're definitely looking forward to exploring more of the city tomorrow
  11. Our two-night stay in Veliko Tarnovo coincides with Unification Day in Bulgaria, celebrating the unification of Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria in 1885. It's a national holiday which falls on September 6 and in Veliko Tarnovo happens to feature an elaborate sound-and-light show. We set off in the evening and straightaway saw that the fountains in our nearby park were illuminated after darkness had fallen: They colours changed every few seconds: We'd soon paced through the town, past the Hanged Rebels Memorial, which looked a lot more noticeable in the dark: Within a few minutes we caught a glimpse of the fortress in the distance: We needed to get a lot closer, which meant passing the cathedral: Some of the fortress walls were extremely bright: Eventually we reached the entrance and were standing with a crowd: The lights were dimmed... ... and then various sections were lit up... ... one after the other... ... until the whole complex was glowing: We were spoilt for choice with colourschemes: Soon the fortress was shooting lasers: Until hitting the best colourscheme of all: After that, the scene turned red and the sound recording accompanying the display stopped: You can get to experience a similar display thanks to a recording which somebody uploaded: And with that, we and the thousands of other people watching dispersed. Today's been a long day but fortunately we don't have to check out until noon tomorrow for our afternoon trip to Bucharest, and the bus station is only a two-minute walk away, so we can have a lie-in in the morning to recover before heading on our first ever visit to Romania!
  12. We woke up this morning excited to explore Veliko Tarnovo. Veliko Tarnovo was the medieval capital of Bulgaria and is supposed to be one of the most picturesque towns in the country Armed with a tourist map from our apartment, we set off in the direction of the town centre. First of all we passed the military monument which we had seen last night. Unbeknown to us when we booked our trip, 6 September is a national holiday in Bulgaria. We'd noticed earlier in the week that some of the places we visited had roads called "6 September Street" and it turns out that's because 6 September is Unification Day, which commemorates the unification of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia in 1885. It seems to be a holiday which is taken seriously here, and we'd arrived at the monument just in time to see a Bulgarian military parade That was rather a surprise! Once it was over, we continued on our way down the main street. Lots of the buildings here were decorated with Bulgarian flags and also bright purple ones, which we assume must be the flag of Veliko Tarnovo. The guidebook said that there was some interesting architecture in Veliko Tarnovo. This house was marked on our tourist map as "The Monkey House". It's got this creature, which we assume is supposed to be a monkey on the facade, but we're not sure why! After the monkey house, we found ourselves on a street called Samovodska Charshia. This is the street where the town's market and craftsmen used to be located. Today there are lots of souvenir shops, but it's still a really pretty road to walk along. There were lots of pretty buildings back down on the main road too. As we turned a corner, we got a glimpse of what we assumed must be the town's cathedral. As we began to walk towards it, we got our first proper view towards Veliko Tarnovo's most impressive sight: the Tsarevets fortress. Veliko Tarnovo is situated on the banks of the Yantra river, and we could also see some of a rocky river gorge in the distance. From here we could look up towards the cathedral. The cathedral was initially built in 1844 but was destroyed by an earthquake in the same year and had to be rebuilt! Just past the cathedral, there was a booth to buy tickets for the castle. It cost 6 lev each (£2.76). Once we had our tickets, we were able to begin walking up towards the fortress. This big lion marked the entrance. It was impressive how intact the fortress walls are and how much of them it seemed like we were going to be able to walk along. The fortress at Tsarevets was the most important fortress of the Second Bulgarian Empire, which existed between 1185 and 1393. Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of the empire and the most prosperous city in Bulgaria during the period. Inside the fortress walls were a church, royal palace and over 400 residential buildings. The fortress was repeatedly attacked by the Ottomans and was ultimately conquered in 1393, after a long siege, marking the end of the Bulgarian empire. It was clear when walking around what a great location it would have been for a fortress. We could see down towards the town... ...including back towards the cathedral... ...and we could see along the river gorge in the other direction as well. From here we really got a feel for what an unusual town Veliko Tarnovo is, perched on the banks of the river, and why it had been so hard to figure out where to walk to get from the train station to where we're staying. The building at the very top of the fortress hill is the Ascension Cathedral. This was the home of the Bulgarian patriarch until 1393. The building was destroyed by the Ottomans and reconstructed in the twentieth century. From up by the cathedral there were some amazing views There was a bit of a breeze, but it wasn't quite windy enough to blow the huge Bulgarian flag on the top of the fortress to its full extent. Looking down from the fortress we caught sight of some churches in the lower part of the town. There was this one, which looked like it was made out of brick... ...and this one (you may only just be able to make it out, below the bridge) which looked like it had a gold-domed roof. As we climbed down from the fortress, we decided to head down to that part of town next to explore. We began to walk on a downhill road, in the shadow of the fortress walls. As we got lower we could see two bridges across the river Yantra. Before long, we came to our first church. This was the Holy Forty Martyrs Church, originally built in 1230. The church was heavily damaged by earthquakes but has been reconstructed to look how it would have done in medieval times and the remains of various Bulgarian emperors are buried here. Just behind the church, there's a big stone bridge across the river. Beyond that, we found the church with the golden roof We crossed the river on a wooden bridge, known as the Bishop's Bridge. It was built in 1774, funded by the local bishop. The wooden boards felt a bit creaky in places as we walked across, but there were some beautiful views We found a little restaurant to get some food, just below the bridge. It was one of those places where the menu was a list of all the things it might be possible to order at some point in time The waiter explained to us that our options today were grilled pork, grilled chicken, kebabs or a salad. Tim went for the chicken, while I had kebapche, which tasted very similar to Croatian ćevapi. The food was beautiful, and for pudding we both had baklava Definitely one of the best views we've had lunch to, and the entire meal cost around £17. Once we'd finished eating it was time to climb back uphill towards the town centre. On our way back to the apartment, we took a slightly different route to the one we had in the morning, and found a couple of viewing terraces we'd missed. From here we could see out across the more modern part of town and the countryside beyond. Then it was back along the colourful streets and towards our air-conditioning to cool off for a bit We were planning to go out again later in the evening, in the hope of witnessing a light display to celebrate the national holiday.
  13. Today it was time for us to leave Sofia behind and set off towards our final Bulgarian destination: Veliko Tarnovo. We were planning to travel by train, but after our experience of being stuck in a very hot and stuffy Bulgarian train carriage for the comparatively short journey between Plovdiv and Sofia on Tuesday, we were slightly apprehensive about the journey from Sofia to Veliko Tarnovo, which is about twice as long. When I was reading up on Bulgarian trains in the guidebook the other day, I'd realised that we could actually have done the Plovdiv-Sofia journey in first class for only a couple of extra lev than we paid for second, so we decided to investigate how much it would cost to buy first class tickets for today's journey. The difference between first and second class on Bulgarian trains seems to be limited to the fact that second class carriages have eight seats per compartment, whereas first class carriages only have six, but we figured the extra space might be nice. We had toyed with the idea of trying to catch the metro to the train station in Sofia this morning but the metro map seemed a bit confusing when I looked at it last night, so in the end we decided to walk. It was a nice stroll in the morning sunshine, and we arrived at the station at around 09.30 with plenty of time to buy our tickets and get to the platform before our train departed at 10am. I knew from the guidebook that Sofia station is quite regimented in terms of which sort of tickets can be bought from which desk, and that for same-day travel in Bulgaria tickets we needed to make our way to desks 1 - 13 on the lower floor. We obviously didn't look decisive enough when we walked into the station though, because no sooner had we arrived and started looking around, then we were pounced on by a man who claimed to be in charge of information. He did have a badge saying "information" around his neck, but I wasn't 100% sure whether he was a genuine employee or not, because I was sure I'd read somewhere about people trying to accost tourists in train stations and help them buy tickets, then demand money. He was quite persistent though and when we said we wanted to go to Veliko Tarnovo, he marched us downstairs to the correct ticket counter, inserted us in what to me looked like the middle of a queue rather than the end, and proceeded to help us buy the tickets. He may have thought he was scamming us when, when the ticket lady asked whether we wanted a seat, he said to her in Bulgarian "Give them first class", but given that this is what we'd already decided to ask for it worked out quite well Unbelievably, the cost of first class tickets worked out as 19 lev (£8.71) each. It costs me more than that to get to work every day! Tim gave the man some small change to say thank you/make him go away and he didn't want to accept it at first, so maybe he was a genuine customer service employee! We soon found our way to the platform and settled in to the train compartment, which was indeed a lot roomier than than the one we'd travelled in the other day There are no direct trains between Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo. Instead, trains on the Sofia line stop at a nearby station called Gorna Oryahovitsa, about 10km from Veliko Tarnovo, which seems to be a major railway junction. The journey to Gorna Oryahovitsa takes around 4 hours, and we were due to arrive there at 13.53. It turned out to be a very scenic journey as we left Sofia behind and travelled through some really pretty countryside. The hills progressed from being forested to quite rocky in places, as the train travelled along the route of the river Iskar, a tributary of the Danube. Every so often we passed through little settlements, but there weren't many large towns. We arrived in Gorna Oryahovitsa promptly at 13.53 and our second train to Veliko Tarnovo was due to depart at 14.15. It was delayed for 15 minutes or so for unspecified reasons, a bit bizarrely as it was already at the station when we arrived, but at least that meant we were able to sit on it while we waited for departure. The journey on the second train was brief - only 20 minutes or so - but I had to track where we were on my maps app because there don't seem to be any announcements at all on Bulgarian trains and the signs with station names are quite low key. Once we got to Veliko Tarnovo, we weren't entirely sure how we were going to get to our apartment. On paper it looked like it was only 2km away, but every time I looked at a map of Veliko Tarnovo I just got confused. The station is a bit outside the main town, in what seems to be an industrial zone, and it wasn't clear from the map what the best way to walk to the town centre would be. We thought we might have found a route but, when we came out of the station, we found that there were no signs and also no pavements, so we decided to admit defeat and jump in a taxi. Tim asked the taxi driver how much it was going to cost, trying to make sure that we didn't get scammed. The taxi driver seemed slightly affronted by the question and told us that he had a meter. In the end it cost a mere 3.50 lev, despite the fact that we drove around in circles for a bit trying to find the exact street that our apartment was on, and Tim gave him 5 lev (£2.30 - I'm pretty sure more than that is already on the clock before you even step into a taxi in Nuneaton!). The building which our apartment was in didn't look terribly appealing from the outside but, once we got inside, it turned out to be lovely There's a large bedroom... ...and a nice living/dining area with a kitchen. Not bad for £27.50 per night! The only slightly strange thing is that when you switch on the light in the bathroom, it starts playing what I assume is supposed to be relaxing music out of a speaker in the ceiling Once we'd settled in to the apartment, we set out to see a little bit of the town and try to find some dinner. Not far from our apartment there's a park... ...with a huge complex of fountains. Fountains seem to be big in Bulgaria! We didn't have to go much further before we found a large statue in a square. This is the Monument to Mother Bulgaria, which commemorates losses in the Russo-Turkish and First World Wars. We spotted that there was a restaurant opposite the square with a nice terrace, so we decided to go there for some dinner. We were rather hungry, having missed lunch while on the train, so had pudding as well as a main course. Despite the fact that we had wine and coffee too, we still didn't manage to spend more than £23. By the time we'd finished eating we were stuffed, so we decided to save exploring the rest of Veliko Tarnovo until tomorrow
  14. Today we had a full day to explore Sofia We had a leisurely start to the morning in our apartment and then, before heading into the main city centre, decided to explore one of Sofia's large parks, which I'd seen marked on a map of the city. Our apartment wasn't too far from Borisova gradina, Sofia's oldest park which was created in 1884. We found the park without too much difficulty and started strolling around. First impressions were that it was virtually deserted and felt more like a forest than a park. We walked for quite a long time on wooded paths which felt more like they were in the middle of the countryside than in the middle of a capital city! Eventually we reached the far end of the park and, when we started walking back along the other side, we found ourselves in a part which seemed a bit more like a conventional park. The large obelisk in the distance is a Communist monument, known as the Mound of Brotherhood. A bit further on we found this pond, whose surface was almost completely covered in water lilies. At the edge of the park there is a lake and a good view towards the mountains outside the town. We crossed over Sofia's river via Eagle's Bridge. Given how small the river is, they have put some effort into the bridges On the other side of the bridge, we found the Monument to the Soviet Army. This was erected in 1954 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the liberation of Sofia by the Soviets, but today it is a controversial monument and is periodically vandalised. The main sight we wanted to find today was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is one of the biggest Orthodox cathedrals in the world. Construction on the cathedral started in 1882 and it was completed in 1912. It was named after St Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince, to honour the Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria in the Russo-Turkish war. It's definitely an enormous church. We walked all the way around it, enjoying the views. Just behind the cathedral is Sofia's art gallery, which is also an attractive building. On the other side of the road, this ornate building is the home of the patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox church. Meanwhile, this very unassuming church is the church of St Sophia, originally built in the 4th century, and the church which gave the city its name. There was one more church which I really wanted to see. This is Sofia's Russian Orthodox church, built as the official church of the Russian embassy in Sofia. It had a really beautiful facade. Once we'd seen the Russian church, we were almost back in the part of Sofia which we'd visited yesterday. In the main square, near to where we'd found the underpass with the archaeological remains, we caught sight of this rather unusual statue. It turns out that it's a statue of St Sofia, which was erected here in 2000, replacing a statue of Lenin which had previously stood in the same spot. Although we'd already been in this part of town yesterday, we decided to stroll around and look at some of the sights again. We realised that from this point we could see the mosque and the synagogue at the same time. We also found this little medieval church, which we'd missed yesterday. It's named after St Petka, the patron saint of saddlers, and was discovered during excavations after the Second World War. We were hungry by this point so set off down the main shopping street in search of somewhere to get lunch. We found a nice restaurant where I had pizza and Tim tried some Bulgarian sausages. Again, very good value at about £18 for the meal. It was a really hot day again in Bulgaria, so we went back to the apartment for a while to enjoy the air-conditioning, heading out again once it was a bit cooler. There was a second park marked on the map of Sofia, so we decided to explore that. The map had a "National Palace of Culture" marked on the map in the middle of the park, which sounded like it might be something impressive. It turned out to be this big concrete building The fountains were pretty though! We've had a great time in Sofia Tomorrow we're on the move again, heading towards our next destination of Veliko Tarnovo.
  15. We had a great time in Plovdiv yesterday, but we're not staying anywhere long on this holiday and today it was time to move on to our next destination: Sofia. We were travelling to the Bulgarian capital by train, so our first task was to find Plovdiv's main railway station. Tim succeeded in navigating us down a scenic route, so we were able to see Plovdiv's colourful main street one more time. The guidebook had warned that the queues to buy train tickets in Bulgaria could be enormous, so we'd arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare. It turns out that I needn't have worried; the queues were quite small this morning and we got served within a few minutes. The train fare from Plovdiv to Sofia - a journey of around 100 miles - cost 9 lev each (£4.17). We were charged an extra half a lev each (23p!) to make a seat reservation. I wasn't sure how much to budget for travel in Bulgaria originally, because the part of the Bulgarian trains website which is supposed to show prices seems to be permanently down, but I don't think I need to worry about not having enough cash The train itself arrived promptly and the seats were reasonably comfortable, but the train was incredibly hot. There were windows which could be opened, and periodically someone would open one in the corridor, letting a nice bit of breeze into our compartment for a while, but then someone else with a fear of draughts would come along and close it and it would be very hot and stuffy again! The journey itself was scenic, taking us through some mountainous countryside towards Sofia. It took us just over 2.5 hours to get to the capital. Once we arrived, we had a walk of a couple of miles to our apartment. The area around the train station wasn't terribly scenic, but as we got closer to the centre of town, things improved. We crossed a bridge known as the Lions' Bridge, which was quite imposing. It crosses the river Vladayska, which was a bit underwhelming From here the city started to look a lot more appealing. Some of the pavements were very uneven though, which made pulling our suitcases hard work. There were also some busy main roads, which had to be crossed by going down steps into an underpass; not the most fun in the world when you've got heavy cases. We went down into what I thought looked like a particularly grotty underpass... ...and were surprised to find that it seemed to be home to some sort of archaeological remains From there it wasn't far to our apartment. The owner had sent me a message on Whatsapp to say that it was next to a bank and to text him when we were outside. I was glad for the directions because I think we would have struggled to find the correct building otherwise! Checking it was a rather surreal experience. The guy who owned the apartment communicated with us by speaking Bulgarian into Google Translate and showing us the English version! It worked remarkably well The apartment seems really good, with a comfy living area... ...a large kitchen... ...and a nice bedroom too At 88 lev per night (£41) it's more expensive than our apartment in Plovdiv, but Sofia is the capital and we are in quite a central location here. Once we'd settled in and enjoyed the air-conditioning for a bit, we set out to get some food and to explore a bit more of Sofia. Not far from our apartment is the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church. This is a Bulgarian Orthodox church, inside what was formerly an Ottoman mosque. We'd seen some really impressive buildings while we were walking with our cases earlier, so we wanted to try and retrace our steps to take some photos. This building seemed to be something to do with the Bulgarian president. There were uniformed guards on duty outside. We went back into the underpass to have a closer look at the remains. It turns out these are the remains of the ancient city of Serdica and were only discovered within the past few years when construction work was taking place on the Sofia metro. We saw a few bits of mosaics... not quite as impressive as the ones we'd seen in Sicily in July, but definitely the most interesting underpass I've ever been in Once we'd come up the opposite side of the underpass we caught sight of a mosque in the distance. This is the Banya Bashi Mosque, which was built in 1566. It's still a functioning mosque today and as we walked around it, we heard the call to prayer. Behind the mosque we found this beautiful yellow building. It was historically home to Sofia's public mineral baths, but is now a museum. A little further on, we found Sofia's synagogue, which is one of the largest synagogues in Europe. By this stage we were back near the Lion Bridge As we made our way back towards the apartment, we caught a glimpse of what looked like a pretty church. It really was just a glimpse, because it was surrounded by trees When we crossed the road and got around to the other side of it, we had a better view This is the church of St Nedelya. We'd almost managed to come round in a circle back to our apartment by this point. First impressions of Sofia are that it seems like a small but pleasant capital, and we're looking forward to exploring some more of it tomorrow
  16. We had a leisurely start to the day in Plovdiv this morning, before setting out to explore the town. Plovdiv is Bulgaria's second city and is European Capital of Culture for 2019. The city is situated on the Maritsa river and the apartment we are staying in is just to the north of the river, whereas the main town centre is on the south, so our first task was to locate a bridge. The guidebook says that Plovdiv is built on six hills and it felt like we had to walk up several of them to get to the old town once we'd crossed the river. It was worth it, though; the old town is home to some really unusual buildings, built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in a style known as "national revival" architecture. Bulgaria was still ruled by the Ottomans at this time, but there was a growing national consciousness and a middle class who could afford to build some impressive houses. This bright blue one, known as the Hindliyan House, was built in 1835 by a merchant who had made his money trading in India. Lots of the houses were really colourful, with beautiful decorations on the front. Some of them are now museums, but many others are still lived in by people today. As we were walking around, I was a bit confused that several buildings seemed to be displaying what, on first glance, looked like an Argentinian flag. It turns out this is actually the flag of Plovdiv As we got towards the centre of the old town, we caught sight of one of Plovdiv's main churches, the church of St Constantine and Elena, with its pretty bell tower. Around the corner from here was the Hisar Kapia, a medieval gate into the old town, built in the 11th century. From here we followed a cobbled street uphill. It was so narrow that the houses almost touched in the middle. This took us to a place called Nebet Tepe, which is one of the hills where ancient Plovdiv was founded. We could see out across the modern part of town where we are staying... ...but the views out towards the old town and the mountains beyond were more scenic We could just make out the minaret of one of Plovdiv's Ottoman mosques. Plovdiv isn't just famous for it's more modern architecture; there are also Roman remains here. The city is home to one of the world's best preserved Roman theatres and that's where we were heading next. It cost 5 lev (£2.33) each to buy a ticket to enter the theatre, which seemed like good value. When we walked through the entrance, this was the view that greeted us. The theatre is enormous and can apparently seat over 5,000 people. It was built in the 1st century AD and lay buried for hundreds of years before finally being rediscovered following a landslide in the 1970s. Today it is used for concerts and plays, so there was a bit of sound and lighting equipment lying around. Tim climbed all the way down to the bottom but I stayed at the top, enjoying the views It really was an incredible location and definitely worth seeing. After the theatre, we made our way back down through the old town, towards the more modern city centre. On the way we passed the Church of the Assumption, which in the mid-nineteenth century was at the centre of the struggle for an independent Bulgarian Orthodox church, when the bishop of Plovdiv began to hold church services in Bulgarian. The inscription on the tower reads "In memory of the liberators" in gratitude to the Russian soldiers who liberated Plovdiv from the Ottomans in 1878. Following the treaty of San Stefano later in 1878, Plovdiv became the capital of a newly independent Bulgaria. But the treaty didn't last long and after the Congress of Berlin, the region of Eastern Rumelia was separated from the rest of Bulgaria. Plovdiv became the capital of Eastern Rumelia instead until the region was reunified with Bulgaria in 1885. By that time, however, Sofia was firmly established as the Bulgarian capital and Plovdiv has been the second city ever since. Once we were down in the town centre, we found the mosque which we had seen while up on the hill. This is the Dzhumaya Mosque, which was built in the 14th century and is believed to be one of the oldest European mosques. It's located just in front of the remains of Plovdiv's Roman stadium, built in the second century AD. It was free to climb down into the stadium and have a look around From here we walked along Plovdiv's main shopping street. Even though this was the more modern part of town, there were still some really pretty buildings, decorated in pastel colours. We found a nice restaurant to get some food; pizza for me and chicken with broccoli(!) for Tim. We finished up with tiramisu for me and cheesecake for Tim. Again it was really cheap - less than £20. After lunch we had another stroll around. We found the Roman Odeon, where it looked like renovation and excavation work was still ongoing. We also walked to Plovdiv's main park, the park of Tsar Simeon. Hopefully this is the closest we'll get to a bear during our trip The park is home to something called "The Lake of the Singing Fountains". It looked like a swimming pool with fountains in it But apparently there is a light display with classical music at weekends. By this stage we were pretty hot, so we decided to start making our way back through the town towards our apartment to cool off and blog. Plovdiv is a really beautiful city and we've had a lovely day here
  17. When we woke up this morning it was a bright sunny day in Burgas. We headed downstairs to investigate what our hotel's breakfast buffet had to offer. It seemed like quite a small breakfast buffet after the extensive one we'd enjoyed at BA's expense in Madrid on Tuesday morning, but we did get a pancake each which was good We didn't need to check out of the hotel until midday, so we decided to go for a stroll into the centre of Burgas. It seemed like a good idea in theory but in practice, because our hotel was so far away from the main centre, we pretty much needed to turn around and come back as soon as we got there It was nice to have a walk by the sea in the sunshine, though. The beach was a lot busier this morning than it had been yesterday evening! As we walked through the seaside park, we found the little church which we'd passed in the dark last night. The park itself was really pretty. It stretches for several miles along the coast and so we could walk almost the entire way from our hotel to the town centre without having to go out onto the road. The Black Sea looked a beautiful shade of blue this morning We made it back to the hotel on time to pack up our things and check out, before setting off back towards the town centre again. We just had time to get lunch in town before catching a bus to Plovdiv at 3pm. My original plan had been to take the train to Plovdiv, which would have involved departing at around 9am and being in Plovdiv for early afternoon. Unfortunately, after investigating the Bulgarian trains website in more detail, it turned out that although you can buy tickets for some trains in advance, the daytime train we wanted to take between Burgas and Plovdiv wasn't one of them. I thought about just turning up on the day and trying to buy a ticket, but it wasn't 100% clear whether a reservation was needed for the train or not, and various things I read online suggested that this was going to be a really busy weekend to travel, with some trains completely booked up, due to it being the last weekend of August and lots of Bulgarians needing to head back home from the coast. In the end I decided not to risk it and to book us two online tickets for the bus instead. I think it was a good decision, because when I eventually did buy the bus tickets, I got two of the last four seats on this particular bus. We ended up eating at the same restaurant as last night, because there was plenty of space to sit outside with our suitcases, so our first two meals in Bulgaria have been Greek Tim had fish with Greek potatoes, while I had chicken souvlaki with pitta bread. The entire meal only cost around £18, including Tim having a pudding of walnut cake and me having a much-needed espresso Then it was time to find the bus station, which wasn't too far away, just around the corner from Burgas train station. I was a bit apprehensive about whether we were going to get our assigned seats or not and, when we got on the bus, we did indeed find other people sitting in them. The good news is that they moved when Tim insisted that they do so and in general, there seemed to be a lower tolerance towards people sitting in the wrong seats compared to other south-east European countries that we've travelled in. Two other people who found someone else sitting in their seats caused a minor commotion, which ended with the bus driving back to the bus station and the conductor making the people move to the seats they were supposed to be sitting in. Our bus left Burgas at 15.00 and was due to arrive in Plovdiv at 19.30. We had an air-conditioning vent above our heads and for the first few minutes of the journey we enjoyed some beautiful cool air... before the lady sitting behind us asked us to re-position it because it was blowing on her. The rest of the journey was rather warm, although some other people on the bus were wearing coats I'm guessing Bulgarians must suffer from the general Eastern European fear of draughts! Our journey took us through miles and miles of sparsely populated Bulgarian countryside. Parts of the interior of Bulgaria are quite mountainous and for a lot of the journey we could see mountains in the distance. We arrived in Plovdiv more or less on schedule and set off to find our apartment, which was less than a mile from the bus station. I'd had a message from the owner telling us to call his mother when we arrived and that she would let us in. Tim navigated us to the correct road without too many difficulties, but once we got there we struggled to find the correct building. We were just starting to feel confused, when a lady came up to us and asked if I was Clare; the owner's mother had come out to look for us, which turned out to be really helpful because I'm not sure we would have found the building otherwise Once we got inside, we found we had a lovely apartment which seems like amazing value for the £29/night that we're paying! There's a nice bedroom... ...a large living area with a kitchenette... ...and a little balcony outside. We even got a little present each - the lady makes things out of felt as a hobby and gave us two little decorations which she said we could hang on our Christmas tree It's dark now, so exploring Plovdiv properly will have to wait until tomorrow, but first impressions are positive
  18. We've been contemplating the idea of travelling to Romania for several years but, as it felt like it could be a potentially difficult place to travel, decided that it was contingent on Tim learning to speak some Romanian. Having dabbled with the language a bit over the past couple of years, he decided that 2019 was going to be the year he committed to studying it seriously, and so at the start of this year we decided it was finally time to book a trip to Romania. After our really positive experiences in Macedonia a few years ago, I was also keen to see some of Bulgaria, and so we decided to combine visiting the two countries for the first time into one two-week holiday this summer. Our trip got off to a very early start, with a 07.15 flight from Gatwick to the Bulgarian city of Burgas. Burgas, which is situated on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast, is not somewhere which we particularly wanted to put on our itinerary when we were initially planning the trip. But, when we were researching flights at the start of the year, we found that flights to Bulgaria were much more limited than flights to Romania, and we found really cheap flights to Burgas with Thomas Cook. I was a little bit apprehensive about flying to the Bulgarian coast, having heard a lot of stories from people who have visited the notorious Bulgarian resort of Sunny Beach (which seems to cater to people who aren't classy enough for Magaluf!) but in the end the price of the flights made the decision for us and we decided to give Burgas a go. It would definitely be exciting to see the Black Sea if nothing else It turns out that the sort of people who go partying in Sunny Beach don't fly with Thomas Cook, and our flight turned out to be made up of a fairly sedate group of mostly older people. But, after our experience of checking in, I don't think either of us would ever fly with Thomas Cook again! Having left home shortly after 2am and deposited the car at the airport parking, we arrived at Gatwick's South terminal around 04.50 and joined the Thomas Cook queue. Along with everyone else in the queue, we'd already checked in on line and were just queuing for baggage drop. How long could that take?! It turns out that it could take 1 hour 25 minutes There were several Thomas Cook counters open for baggage drop but they were serving multiple flights, and so there was an enormous queue of people which snaked around six times before getting to the desks. It was like queuing for a roller-coaster, except there weren't those helpful signs telling you that you were 30 minutes away from the front at this point. There were several members of Thomas Cook staff organising the queue, and every so often one of them would shout out to ask whether there was anyone queuing for a flight to Majorca, which was obviously just about to start boarding, and then a handful of people would put their hands up and go to the front of the queue. This wasn't a problem and over the course of the next hour we made our way towards the front of the queue, until we were in a position where we only had one more loop of the queue left to do before depositing our baggage. Unfortunately, at this point the staff member called out to ask whether there was anyone waiting for a flight to Antalya in Turkey. It turns out that there were in excess of a hundred people in the queue waiting for that flight, most of whom were after us. We were held back while the barriers were opened up and anyone who claimed to be flying to Antalya was allowed to push ahead of us. "Claimed" to be going to Antalya is the key phrase, because no one actually looked at anyone's boarding passes before allowing them to push in, and I later saw at least two people who had pushed ahead of us on our flight to Burgas! To say we were annoyed would be an understatement Never mind the fact that our hopes of a Wetherspoons breakfast before the flight were gradually slipping away, our boarding passes said that our flight was supposed to start boarding at 06.15 and there didn't seem to be much hope of us depositing our baggage before then. We essentially had to wait until all the Antalya people had checked in, before the staff member decided that Burgas was the next most urgent flight and allowed us to go to a desk. It was after 06.15 by the time we finally checked our bags in and were able to progress to security. By the time we'd got through that, our flight was showing as boarding and we had to go straight to the gate The flight itself was delayed by air traffic control congestion at Gatwick, so it was around 07.35 before we started taxiing out to the runway. We were absolutely starving by this point - and hadn't had any coffee yet - so couldn't wait for the in-flight food service to begin. Our tickets said that we were entitled to a "standard meal", whatever that meant, which I hadn't booked deliberately but had a vague recollection of acquiring as a result of booking checked baggage. Once we'd finally taken off and the cabin crew started making announcements about food, there was no mention of meals though. Instead there was an extremely limited catalogue of snacks to order from the trolley. In desperation, we bought some shortbread biscuits and a bag of chocolate fingers to eat for breakfast (this was honestly the best choice from the menu ), as well as a cup of coffee each. We'd just finished eating those - and were flying somewhere over the middle of Germany - when a flight attendant suddenly popped up and handed us a meal It turned out that we were getting an entire breakfast, which included sausage, bacon and scrambled eggs, as well as yoghurt and an apple and cinnamon muffin. I didn't exactly feel like a cooked breakfast after chocolate fingers, but now that we'd been handed it we kinda had to eat it and it was actually quite nice. Plus we got a free coffee Having flown over France, Belgium and Germany, the flight proceeded across the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, before finally reaching Bulgaria. I fell asleep somewhere over Hungary, only waking up again when we were close to landing in Burgas. Bulgaria is two hours ahead of the UK, so despite the very early start it was after 1pm local time when we landed. I'd struggled a bit with researching how to get from Burgas airport to Burgas. There didn't seem to be a lot of information online and everything I did find linked to the website of Burgas airport, which seems to be permanently down. I've come to the conclusion that there probably isn't much demand for this kind of information, because virtually everybody who was on our flight either got into a taxi or a Thomas Cook coach. When we found the public bus stop outside the terminal, there was literally no one else there (which is pretty unusual for an airport bus stop!). Bus number 15 runs between the airport and Burgas and tickets cost 1.50 lev each, which equates to 69p. It was like St Petersburg, in that we had to purchase the tickets from a lady walking up and down the bus. What I hadn't realised was that buses going in both directions stop at the same airport bus stop and, oblivious to this, we'd got on a bus heading in the wrong direction. After 10 minutes or so it reached its terminus, turned around and proceeded to drive back to the airport to pick up more people. From there, the journey took another 20 minutes or so to reach the main bus station in Burgas. The hotel we are staying in tonight is about 2.5 miles from the bus station and we'd decided to walk. We should perhaps have taken a taxi, but with it being our first day in a new country we didn't really know how much anything should cost, and it was a nice sunny day so we didn't really mind walking. Our first impressions of Burgas was that it seemed pleasant, although Bulgaria doesn't seem to go in for street signs in a big way, which made navigating slightly more difficult. We found our hotel without too much trouble though and have got a nice room, for which we paid 71 lev (£33) for the night; a bargain, which includes breakfast! By the time we got the hotel, we were exhausted after the early start and needed a nap. My nap went on slightly longer than intended, and so it was early evening by the time we set out again in search of food. From the hotel we walked through a shady park towards the coast. There were various seaside attractions in the park; ice-cream stalls, people selling religious icons, and an exhibition of enormous sand sculptures From there we weren't far from the coast, and a few minutes later we got our first view of the Black Sea Although it was a warm day, it was quite breezy by this stage and we could see a pair of enormous Bulgarian and EU flags blowing in the wind. The beach itself seemed really sandy A little further along there was a pier, which we walked out onto to get a few back down towards where we had been. We weren't far away from the centre of town now, which was pretty busy as it was Saturday night. We managed to track down a restaurant where the menu had pictures and English translations. The waitress explained that the restaurant had two menus - one for sushi and one for Greek food - so we decided to go with Greek Tim ordered beef with Greek vegetables (Greek vegetables turned out to be potato and spring onion)... ...while I had strips of beef in a tomato sauce. Both were really nice. We also had a large bottle of water, two beers and 375ml of Bulgarian wine, which in total came to around 48 lev (£22). I think Bulgaria is going to turn out to be good value for money! By the time we'd finished eating, darkness had fallen. The park was well lit at night, so we walked back through it towards the hotel. We passed a small church... ...a musical performance... ...and a colourful fountain display ...before making it back to the hotel I started the holiday with low expectations for Burgas, but it's actually been really pleasant and our first impressions of Bulgaria so far are really positive Tomorrow we'll be leaving the coast behind and travelling onwards to our next destination: Plovdiv.
  19. We're safely back home. Here's how the weather was on the day our flight was due to leave: We travelled through a very aggressive hailstorm on the train earlier in the day.
  20. Some people like surprises. And what could be a nicer surprise than finding out you've got an extra day on holiday? Alas, we didn't enjoy finding out about ours. Arriving at the airport, we knew that our flight was slightly delayed. No harm there. A little later, we noticed something of a commotion in front of our gate, three hours before the revised take-off time. We ignored it but a little later Clare overheard a man explaining to his wife, who was sitting next to Clare, that there was a problem and that the plane might not land. I made a point of going up to the gate to hear for myself. That's when we got confirmation. The plane was not only en route but was also on time ... and always had been. It had been circling above the airport looking for an opportunity to land. Madrid, in the centre of the desert that is Spain, was experiencing inclement weather. We'd already seen the downpour ourselves arriving at the airport. It happened that the weather was so bad that it wasn't possible to land a plane safely. The staff informed us that the plane had been diverted to Barcelona to refuel and that Head Office would later make a decision on whether it would come back afterwards. The best-case scenario was that it would arrive at 01:00 if it were allowed to return. This was no good to us personally, since we wouldn't be able to retrieve our car until 05:00 at the earliest, making it very unlikely that we'd be back at time for work, especially for Clare's early-morning work commitments, which required her to be suited and booted. The staff were trying their very best to be helpful, especially given that they didn't know anything beyond the information which they were passing back to us. They informed us that we would be given food vouchers for a restaurant, although they didn't know which ones at that moment. In spite of the total innocence of the staff in this matter, some passengers seemingly couldn't resist taking out their frustrations on them with infantile outbursts about wanting a flight rather than a food coupon. The news later came in that the flight wouldn't be returning soon from Barcelona. The latest update was that it would leave at 08:00, and that the airport would arrange overnight accommodation and food. At least, I thought that's what was being said; people seemingly couldn't stop grumbling such that those of us trying to get accurate information could clearly hear it, and the staff members were soon inundated by a queue of people all asking the same questions and getting the same answers. We waited until the end and then spoke to a staff member, who was taken aback at somebody being polite and even said 'Thank you for your kindness!' Things became a little unclear once we'd retraced our steps back to Terminal 4, 20+ minutes away, and, as instructed, had joined the chaotic customer services queue. Nothing was budging there for half an our until finally a woman told people that there was a bus outside to pick us up, and off we headed. Well, not quite all of us. There were people for whom Madrid was a connecting airport who were complaining that they couldn't retrieve their hold luggage. If they'd been listening up top, they'd have heard a gentleman informing everybody that hold luggage couldn't be returned so late at night because of security reasons. We waited at the bus stop without much happening. Business Class passengers were allowed to get on board the bus but for seemingly little benefit; they were sitting down in the dark with nothing happening whilst we were standing. Meanwhile, the sky was flashing, followed by extensive roaring and rumbling. I think we probably all felt better being on the ground than in the air! Eventually, a second bus pulled up and we were allowed to board, after which we were transferred to a hotel. We received coupons for the restaurant whilst we queued and then checked in. The lady doing so stated that there was no news on when the next flight would be but if it were early, then we'd all get wake-up calls. Otherwise, we could pop down casually after breakfast and check to see whether any information had been printed and posted. We could see some posters for a rescheduled flight to Berlin, so the process seemed easy enough. At this point, it was 00:30, with the restaurant closing at 01:00, so we didn't spend long in our room. Our first impressions were very good: There was plenty of food and we weren't slow in finishing it, so soon were back in the room ready to sleep. I woke up at around 6 and headed downstairs to see whether there was any news. The lady who had checked us in hadn't heard of anything. My phone had, though: Oh, crikey. That's a lot longer than we were expecting. Getting to work really wasn't going to be possible today. And there was the problem of our cats; they hadn't had fresh food since Monday morning, when their feeder had discharged the final of its four offerings. They were now going to go without for not only Monday evening but all of Tuesday too. I thought of a solution but it was too early to act upon it. Their regular catsitter, who visits daily when we're on longer breaks, has a key, and so I texted her as soon as I thought it possible to get away with it, which was 07:00 UK time. She's a star, who did an emergency visit and made sure they were well loaded for our return. The breakfast spread was a very generous one, although neither of us was particularly hungry having eaten dinner only a few hours before. The morning then became one of idleness, with us having nothing to do but wait for our bus, which was due at 12:00. I bought an obscenely overpriced book at the airport yesterday evening anf managed to resist the temptation to read it because I didn't want to have to spend another 20€. We got to the airport with no fuss but then hit a roadblock: our flight wasn't mentioned anywhere on the boards. A quick check with a staff member was fruitless, and she recommended we go to customer services. More queuing followed, accompanied by the frustration which always results when there's no movement and you can't understand how everybody being served could possibly need so much time. We finally got through and got some fairly uncomplicated instructions: retread yesterday's steps and at some point your flight will be on the board. This we did and thus it was, although rather unhelpfully it was yesterday's flight details and an indication that it was cancelled. We knew that we were entitled to a food voucher and so set off to find someone who could give us one. The answer to that request was initially no but magically turned to yes within minutes and, eventually, we were able to get the required paperwork. We headed off and ate a fairly standard meal. And now we're sitting near our gate. It's two and a half hours until our flight is due to leave. Let's hope we don't get another bonus day in Madrid.
  21. The weather forecast had warned that there could be storms today and sure enough, when we opened our curtains in Segovia this morning, things looked rather grey and damp. We got slightly wet on our walk from the hotel to the bus station, where we were due to catch a 10.15 bus to the town of Ávila. Ávila is only about 40 miles southwest of Segovia but the two towns aren't connected by rail, so when we were doing our research it seemed that to get to one from the other by train it was necessary to go via Madrid. There are only a handful of buses between the two towns, so we'd booked tickets in advance on the only bus which was leaving Segovia for Ávila this morning. We arrived at the bus station ready to fight our way onto the bus, but it actually turned out to not be a very popular route and the bus was almost empty I guess that's why they don't run very frequently! It's not a very long journey, and within an hour we were stepping off the bus in Ávila. I'd hoped that when we got to Ávila it would be fairly obvious in which direction the historic town centre was, but there turned out not be many signs so we walked in the wrong direction initially and had to resort to Google Maps to get back on track. We knew we were finally in the right place when we got our first glimpse of the town walls. Ávila is a world heritage site, because it has a complete set of medieval town walls, built between the 11th and 14th centuries. It's also home to a lot of beautiful churches, including the basilica of San Vicente. The walls looked incredible and reminded me a little bit of Carcassonne. I knew it was possible to walk around about half of the walls, but initially we struggled to find the way in. Eventually we located the tourist information office, where we picked up a map. There were also some impressive models there, both of the walls... ...and the cathedral. We realised that the walls are illuminated at night as well, which must be spectacular to see. Maybe on a future holiday we'll have to come and stay overnight in Ávila! With the help of the map, we walked alongside the walls for a while and managed to find the ticket office. It only cost €5 each to get in. The entrance to the walls was close to the cathedral and once we'd climbed up into the open we had some amazing views of it The cathedral was built partly as a fortress and its apse forms one of the turrets in the walls. Our route led away from the cathedral and we could soon see down towards the basilica. Once you were up on the walls the path was pretty flat, but every so often there were little staircases you could climb up for better views. They were usually worth the effort! We could see for a long way out over the countryside... ...and towards a rather strangely shaped church in the distance. There were other people on the walls, but it was nowhere near as busy as walking around the walls of Dubrovnik! I guess it helps that Ávila is a long way from the sea We were able to walk for about an hour before the accessible part of the walls came to an end. In the distance we could see the walls continuing around the far side of the town. If you were able to walk the entire way round I think it would be several miles! I'd expected Ávila to be quite small, but the town within the walls is actually pretty large. Eventually we'd got as far as we could go and it was time to climb down. We walked along some pretty streets in the old town... ...before coming to a square where there were several restaurants. We chose one which had a menu of the day for €14. This include a starter, main course and pudding, as well as bread and a glass of wine. I had pasta bolognese as my starter, while Tim chose a caesar salad. For the main course, Tim had croquetas caseras, which seemed to consist of melted cheese with potato, while I had fingers de pollo, which were like chicken goujons. Pudding was chocolate mousse. The consistency was a bit like Angel Delight which has been made with too much milk to set, but it actually tasted really nice It was a lovely meal and seemed like really good value for the amount of food we had! Once we'd finished eating, it was time to head in the direction of the train station to begin our journey back to Madrid. When we were booking our train back from Ávila to Madrid, we'd had a choice of two different trains. One would have got us to the airport too early - over three hours before our flight was due to depart - and the other would have got us there with just under two hours. I deliberated over the options for a while, but in the end we decided to play it safe and book the earlier train, which left Ávila at 15.47. The trains between Ávila and Madrid aren't quite as fast as the high speed trains between Madrid and Segovia, and so it was a fairly leisurely train journey. We arrived into Madrid's Príncipe Pío station around 17.30. The plan was that from here we would catch the suburban C1 train directly to Terminal 4 of the airport. This was the same train which we had caught to Madrid Chamartín on Saturday, but a slightly longer journey, because the Príncipe Pío station which the Ávila trains arrive into is situated further south in Madrid. Príncipe Pío turned out to be a rather confusing station and we walked around for a while before finding the correct platform for the suburban trains. Things were confused further by the fact that both C1 and C10 trains seemed to depart from this platform, with only C1 trains going as far as the airport, but eventually a C1 train was advertised as being the next train on the departures board. The only problem was that its destination wasn't shown as being the airport, but a station called Delicias, which was only a couple of stops along the route. We figured that maybe this was a C1 train that was terminating early for some reason, but decided to get on it anyway and change at Delicias if need be. We sat on the train and within a few minutes we had arrived at Delicias. The train did indeed terminate there and we had to get off. We progressed from being slightly confused to extremely confused when we walked along the platform and found that the entire station seemed to be out of service, with no trains running towards the airport at all. Eventually, with the help of Tim speaking to a staff member in Spanish, we managed to establish that there were repair works on the line and therefore the C1 wasn't running between this station and Chamartín. In order to get to the airport, we therefore needed to catch a bus from Delicias to Madrid's Atocha railway station, another suburban train from Atocha to Chamartín, and then rejoin the C1 from Chamartín to the airport. Wow At this point I was extremely glad that we'd decided to hedge our bets and catch the earlier train back from Ávila. It was pouring with rain in Madrid by this point, but luckily the bus stop we needed wasn't too far away from the station and we managed to get on the correct bus almost straight away. The tickets we'd bought for the C1 journey worked on the bus, which was good, but once we got to Atocha and tried to get through the gates to catch the train to Chamartín, we found that they were no longer functioning. Tim spoke to yet another staff member in Spanish, who explained that they had expired. He wasn't able to do anything about it and said that we'd need to go to an official desk. We found the desk but there was an extremely long line of people, so in the interests of actually getting to the airport we decided it would be better just to buy another ticket! €6 and two more trains later, we eventually made it to Terminal 4... only to find that once we'd checked in and gone through security, we had to catch yet another train from Terminal 4 to Terminal 4S where our (delayed!!) flight was departing from. All in the all it hasn't been the easiest journey home, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that we've had a really nice relaxing weekend in Spain and visited some beautiful places
  22. Clare

    Day 2: Segovia

    We went out for a meal in Segovia last night and by the time we were walking back to the hotel, darkness had started to fall. The aqueduct looked beautiful against the night sky. So did lots of the little squares and streets in the old town As we walked back towards the hotel, we caught a glimpse of Segovia's cathedral in the distance. The cathedral is situated in the town's main square. It looked absolutely stunning illuminated like this. Once we got back to the hotel we could see the illuminated castle from our balcony too When we woke up this morning it was another beautiful sunny day. There was even a hot air balloon floating over the town We set off to explore Segovia properly in the daylight. We soon came to the cathedral, which looked just as beautiful as it had done at night. The cathedral was built between 1525 and 1577, replacing an earlier cathedral which had been destroyed in a siege. We noticed these strange gargoyles on the side of the cathedral which seemed to be sticking their tongues out! From the cathedral we continued walking through the narrow streets of the old town. It was a lot quieter in the early morning than it had been last night! One of the things we've noticed about Segovia is that lots of the buildings have beautiful patterned facades. From a distance they look like tiles... ...but when you get up close you can see that they're some sort of plasterwork. The cathedral isn't the only impressive church in Segovia. This is the church of San Esteban, which originally dates from the 12th century. By the time we got close to the aqueduct, the streets were getting busier. The aqueduct looked beautiful in the morning sunshine. It is thought to have been constructed in the first century AD and is one of the best-preserved Roman aqueducts in the world. Amazingly, it was used to bring water to the city until the mid-nineteenth century. We walked alongside it for a while and reached a point where it turns a corner. From here, we could get a glimpse of the cathedral through its arches. Once the aqueduct turns the corner it becomes lower, running alongside houses, down the middle of a street. We continued to stroll along it for a while, enjoying the shade, before eventually turning around and walking back to the centre of town. From the square outside the aqueduct we could see up towards the old town walls. We climbed up a staircase that looked like it was going to lead to promising views. Sure enough, we could soon see out over the town and towards the countryside beyond. We were right up by the highest part of the aqueduct now... ...and had a great view over the newer part of town. At the top of the walls we walked along some really narrow streets... ...past some more beautiful patterned houses... ...and came across this enormous tower. I'm not sure what it was, but the tower was covered in patterns too This part of town was colourful, with brightly painted houses. The road we were on eventually took us back towards the cathedral and main square. From there we walked back towards our hotel, which is in this pretty building. We were heading towards the castle, the Alcázar, which is on the far side of town from the aqueduct. From a little square outside the castle, we had some great views over the countryside. In the distance we could see a church... ...and a monastery. It's free to walk into the grounds of the Alcázar. To go inside the castle itself costs €8; €5.50 for the palace and €2.50 to be able to climb the tower. Throughout its history the castle has been used as a royal palace, a prison and a military academy. We bought our tickets and went inside the palace first, saving the tower for the end. There was lots of armour on display. There were also some beautiful stained glass windows. The most impressive thing about the interior though were the ceilings. This one in the throne room was my absolute favourite... ...but this one was also pretty spectacular... ...and this room, known as the Hall of the Kings, not only had an amazing ceiling but also statues of monarchs all the way around the walls. Once we'd finished exploring inside, it was time to climb the tower. We had a slight glitch as somehow we'd managed to lose our ticket, but luckily we still had the receipt and the nice man on the gate let us through. At the ticket office there had been several signs warning that there were 152 steps to climb to get to the top of the tower. We thought that didn't sound too bad... but they were up quite a steep, winding staircase, so we were both pretty tired by the time we got to the top! The top of the tower is a big viewing platform. There was a big Spanish flag on the top, blowing in the breeze... ...and we could look out across the roof of the palace, towards the smaller turrets of the castle. The most impressive views, though, were in the other direction, towards the town. We had a fantastic view of the cathedral, which really shows how enormous it is. It was definitely worth climbing all the stairs for The afternoon sun was quite hot by this point though, so after a quick drink in the castle cafe, we decided to go back to the hotel to enjoy the air-conditioning and shade for a bit before heading out again in the evening once it was cooler. Segovia is a really beautiful place and it's been a great choice for a relaxing bank holiday trip
  23. This weekend feels like a holiday which has crept up on us, because for quite a long time we didn't think we'd be going on it. We booked (reasonably!) cheap flights to Spain for the August bank holiday back in November 2018, flying to Madrid from Heathrow. The plan was to visit Segovia, a town recommended to us by a Spanish friend last time we were in Madrid in 2017. But as we got closer to summer 2019, the news was full of threats of strikes at Heathrow and the bank holiday weekend was one of the dates which was announced for strike action. It was only in mid-August that the airport announced that the strikes for this weekend were being delayed, to give unions more time to vote on a new pay offer, and so suddenly our Segovia trip was back on the cards By our standards it wasn't too early a start this morning. Our flight was at 09.15, so we left home just after 04.30 and drove down to Heathrow. Tim had booked a slightly unusual airport parking at a golf club in the general vicinity of the airport (it was cheap!) and we arrived there to find a car park and a couple of portacabins, one of which looked like it was the reception to check in and one of which looked like it belonged to the security guards. We were slightly confused to find the reception one was locked, but we were invited to sit in the other portacabin by one of the guards, who assured us that the staff would be back soon... A staff member did indeed eventually appear and the situation became clearer when, after we'd handed over the car keys etc, he led us out of the portacabin, locked the door and proceeded to drive us to the airport in his car It seems like it's a rather low-budget operation, without even a shuttle bus, and just one staff member to do both the admin and the driving! Luckily the drive down had taken less time than I'd expected, so we still arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. While eating breakfast in Wetherspoons, I realised that last time we'd been here we'd been about to fly to Russia! This weekend should hopefully be more relaxing The flight to Madrid took just over two hours. It was a sunny day but for a lot of the journey there were just views of the sea as we flew over the Bay of Biscay. We landed in Madrid at around 12.30 local time and we could feel a blast of heat as soon as we stepped off the plane. It was definitely warmer here than at home! We had landed in Terminal 4 which was convenient, because Terminal 4 is home to the airport's train station. For around €3 each, we were able to catch a train straight from the airport to Madrid Chamartín, one of the capital's main train stations. Madrid Chamartín was where our train to Segovia was due to leave from, but not for a couple of hours. After the experience we had when trying to get to Toledo in 2017, when we couldn't travel on the train we wanted because it was already sold out, we had booked our train tickets in advance for the 15.40 train. This gave us some time to kill in Madrid, but there doesn't seem to be a lot you can do in the area around Chamartín station. When we arrived here from Salamanca in 2014, we got so confused in the mass of roads and bridges outside the station that we eventually gave up on trying to find our apartment on foot and had to take a taxi instead! So our plan for today was to stay in the vicinity of the station and get something to eat. We ended up finding a nice cafe and had a very nutritious lunch of a pizza slice and a doughnut, accompanied by a much-needed cup of coffee Spanish stations are similar to Russian ones in that you have to pass your bags through airport-style security before you can get near a train. We were travelling on a high speed train to a station called Segovia-Guiomar, which is several kilometres outside the main town of Segovia itself. The display on the train indicated that the outside temperature was 35 degrees, but the train itself was beautifully air-conditioned and we had a pleasant journey, arriving in Segovia-Guiomar just before 16.15. A lot of the train journey had been through tunnels and as we stepped out of the station we got a glimpse of the mountains we must have travelled through. The internet had made catching a bus into the centre of Segovia sound quite confusing, but in reality it couldn't have been simpler. We walked straight out of the station and crossed the road to the bus stop, where a bus was already waiting to take us into the town. It cost about €2 each and took around 15 minutes to deposit us at the edge of the old town. This was the view we got when we stepped off the bus! One of the attractions of Segovia is that it's home to this amazing Roman aqueduct The hotel we're staying at is about 1km away from the aqueduct bus stop, so we had a short walk through the old town (which looks absolutely beautiful). The hotel room is small, but comfortable. The only thing that's a little bit odd is that the air-conditioning is controlled from reception, so you have to call them if you want it turned on or off! The real bonus is that we've got a little balcony with amazing views In one direction we can see the mountains... ...and in the other direction we can see the Alcázar of Segovia in the distance. It's been quite a long day of travelling, so we were glad to get to the hotel room for a bit of a rest before heading back out into Segovia in search of dinner
  24. It was another beautiful sunny day in Sicily when we woke up this morning. We had breakfast outside on a terrace slightly lower down in the same building as our apartment. As we had some time before we needed to check out, we tried to sit and read a bit in the sun. It soon got too hot though! Our plan for today was to drive from Castelbuono to the seaside town of Cefalù, which is on Sicily's northern coast. We had a beautiful drive through the mountains and then along by the sea. When we arrived, parking in Cefalù was a bit tricky, with lots of narrow streets to negotiate. It looked like a really pretty place though. We could see a fortress on the hill behind the town, but didn't fancy climbing up to it. We walked through the streets of the old town... ...getting some more great views up towards the fortress. Down one of the side streets we passed we could just get a glimpse of the sea. We passed the church of St Stefano, which looked very old... ...before arriving in a large square which is home to Cefalù's cathedral. A cathedral was first built here in 1131 by the Normans, in a fortress style. It certainly looked very big and imposing. From the cathedral we walked down more colourful little streets... ...until we got to the sea I read in the guidebook that the beach at Cefalù is one of the most popular in Sicily, because it's very sandy. It certainly looked busy today! It was lovely looking out to sea... ...and back inland towards the town. When we got to the end of the pier, we could just make out the twin towers of the cathedral in the distance. We walked back into the town in the hope of tracking down somewhere to get lunch. After so much meat yesterday, we had a vegetarian day with a margherita and four cheese pizza After lunch we had a long drive along the coast toward the B&B where we are spending the night. Because this seaside part of Sicily is so popular, I couldn't find anywhere affordable to stay along the coast at all, so had booked a place which is a few miles inland from the town of Tindari. We've got a lovely room... ...and our own terrace to sit on There are amazing views, both of the nearby vineyard... ...and of the mountains behind. We couldn't have hoped for a more beautiful place to spend our last night in Sicily
  25. My day was going to be an early write-off. We arrived at our spectaculary good apartment at about 16:30, around half an hour after finishing a colossal steak which was far more than I would normally be able to eat but the expense of which compelled me to attack. In a sweltering hot country and with a beer and some wine in me, that was a recipe for a food coma, and so I was immediately asleep as soon as the host left us. More or less. Clare wanted the photos for the blog preparing first, so I did those with my eyes partially closed and then had a cold shower. It didn't work and I was soon a curious combination of asleep and feeling sorry for myself. Clare is much more disciplined than I am and set to work on the blog. When it was finished a couple of hours later, she asked me whether I felt it was time to go out and see the town. As far as I was concerned but it wasn't fair to give her cabin fever, so I agreed to go out too. cursing myself for still being too full to be able to even consider buying some beer or wine to enjoy on our rooftop. It turned that I needn't have felt so full at all. You see, when we arrived around 2 o'clock looking for a meal, we went to the only place we'd encountered stating that it was a pizzeria/restaurant and tried to order. It wasn't open, aside from its cafe. So I asked the lady whether there were any other places open. In her opinion, that was very unlikely, although she suggested we head down the main road. That was how we found the restaurant offering our very expensive meal. It turned out all she would've had to say is 'There are about a million restaurants in the Old Town. Why don't you head there?' We didn't even know there was an Old Town until we headed down the main road this evening and went further than the restaurant we'd visited earlier! We espied a spire in the distance and so headed towards it: We saw a sign pointing out that there was an Old Town and so headed into a side street: And look what we found: a busy square! The mountains in the background were a sight to behold: It had a large clock tower: There was a small section of portici: And the church whose spire we'd glimpsed earlier: We headed down a street in the direction of the castle: There was a couple getting married: We thought we'd leave them to their privacy. Or didn't want to pay the entrance fee. Delete as applicable. And so we turned around and headed back to the square: Emerging from that direction presented us with the mountains again. We'd driven along them earlier to get to Castelbuono: And so we began the journey home, heading up a small street with an attractive tower beckoning us: Soon we passed a lovely fountain: Before we knew it we were a two-minute walk from our appartment with an ice cream store next to us, so we picked up a large mint ice cream apiece and retired to our rooftop to see the soon fade away behind the mountains: I'm really glad that we ventured out ... but can't help but feel slightly aggrieved that the lady we spoke to earlier in the day didn't tell us about the Old Town. I'd have loved to see it in proper daylight, plus we wouldn't have been compelled to eat so large a meal that we were effectively denied the chance to sit on our rooftop with a nice bottle of wine to end the evening. There's always a wineless tomorrow morning, of course, when I inevitable wake up early and need somewhere to sit whilst reading!
  26. It was another bright sunny day when we woke up this morning. From the window of our room, we had a view of Enna's main street where we'd seen the lights last night. We didn't take any photos of breakfast this morning, but it was the biggest selection we've had on this Sicily trip. A selection of cheese and meats, as well as an impressive array of cakes When we'd finished eating, we went out to see some of Enna by daylight. In one of the squares we found a viewpoint from which we could see down towards the lower town. We'd left our car somewhere down there We continued walking up through the town... ...until we got as far as the castle, which sits at its far end. This is Castello di Lombardia, which was built here in 1076. We walked around the edge of the castle, admiring the views out across the surrounding countryside. In particular, we caught sight of a large mountain in the distance. Could that possibly be Etna? As we came around the far side of the castle... ...we saw a large rock which looked like it might provide an even better viewpoint. We climbed to the top of it and wow, the view was really amazing! In one direction we could see the little medieval village of Calascibetta, perched on the top of a hill. In the other direction, we had a really clear view towards Etna. When we looked back, we could see the castle too. Meanwhile the big wide road we could see cutting across the countryside was the motorway to Palermo. We'd be driving on it a bit later (though not as far as Palermo!). Climbing down from the rock was a little bit harder than climbing up. We made it down though and got back to the B&B on time to check out at 10.30. It was really good value, at just €60 for the night. Then we just needed to walk back down the steep and narrow roads which Google Maps had made us try and drive up yesterday. We retrieved the car and set off towards our destination for tonight: Castelbuono. As we left Enna on the nice wide main road, we could see back up towards the upper town where we'd been staying. Soon we were driving far below the town. There were some beautiful views as we made our way towards the motorway. We were driving towards the hilltop town of Gangi, which became famous a few years ago when the mayor started giving away abandoned houses for a Euro (on the condition that purchasers spent lots of money restoring them). It was difficult to get a good photo from the car, but you can make Gangi out on the right of this photo. When we arrived we found that the driving was crazy, even by Sicilian standards, and it was quite difficult to park, so we only had a quick look around. It looked like it would be an interesting town but we felt too hot to climb all the way up this hill. Soon we were back on the road. To get to Castelbuono, we were driving on little roads through the Parco delle Madonie. This is a nature reserve, which is home to some of the highest mountains in Sicily. There were some amazing views as we drove, but unfortunately there weren't very many laybys or places to stop, so most of the photos are taken from a moving car. A lot of the time the landscape looked very dry and barren... ...but in other places it was greener At times Tim had to drive rather slowly because we got caught behind the local traffic It was around 2pm when we began to approach Castelbuono, which is situated to the east of the national park. We were a bit early to check into our apartment, so decided to get lunch. The only difficulty was trying to find a restaurant! We walked around the town for a while, failing to find anything, and eventually found a sign pointing towards a pizzeria. That sounded promising, but when we tracked it down the waiter told us that the pizza ovens weren't switched on yet so pizza was off the menu. That was a shame, but I was hopeful that I could have some pasta instead... until I looked at the menu and found that all the pasta dishes either involved fish or mushrooms In desperation we looked at the meat section of the menu (which was quite small compared to the fish section!) and ended up ordering a large steak to share. And when the waiter said it was large, he meant large! After we'd ordered it, it occurred to me that we hadn't been asked how we wanted it cooked ... and my worst fears were confirmed when Tim cut into it and we found that it was the opposite of well done It was actually really delicious, if you closed your eyes and tried not to think about what you were eating! By the time we had finished we were extremely full, so I was glad that we didn't have to walk too far to find our apartment. When we arrived and checked in, we found it was one of the best places we've ever stayed We've got a large living/dining room with a kitchen... ...a spacious bedroom... ...and, best of all, a roof terrace with amazing views Not bad value for €70 - it's a shame we're only staying in Castelbuono for one night!
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